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Questioning ethics of fishing for bass during spawning season

Anglers wait for the start of a bass fishing tournament. Butler Eagle file photo

A chunky smallmouth bass raced from the shallows, inhaling Roger’s soft jerkbait, commonly called a “fluke.” A couple minutes later the fish was boated, safely released, and rapidly swam back to the area it came from.

That incident took place a couple of weeks ago, during early May. It was a good outing with many other smallmouth bass caught and released as well. With water temperatures approaching 60 degrees, the fish were in what’s commonly referred to as the pre-spawn period. Typically, this is a two to three-week span when bass are feeding heavily for the soon-to-come spawn during which a great deal of energy will be spent.

As I write this in mid-May, the situation is about to change. Bass will no longer be in the pre-spawn phase, but will be on nesting beds. This brings up an interesting dilemma, that being the ethics of fishing for nesting bass.

While it’s not illegal to target bass during the spring — with in the mid-April to mid-June time frame during which bass spawn — it is illegal to repeatedly cast to visible beds. I suspect many anglers are unaware of this long-standing regulation.Spend some time on Presque Isle Bay during the spring and you’ll likely see anglers targeting beds. The combination of clear water and a sandy bottom makes bass beds stand out during clear, calm days.

But this aside, there’s no doubt that when you catch bass during the annual “catch and release” spring season, once the water temperatures have been in the low to mid 60s for some time, you’re taking bass off spawning beds. Even if you don’t seem them.

So, what’s the harm in taking bass from beds? Most of the bass caught when spawning is taking place are males whose biological task is to protect the nest from predators. Removing that fish leaves the nest vulnerable while it’s gone. Upon its return, it’s poss ible the energy used while being caught reduces its guarding abilities.

Opinions, even within the scientific community, widely vary as to how much actual harm is done by fishing for spawning bass. Generally, the farther north you go, the more protective the regulations are to limit (or not permit) bass fishing during the spring. In our southern states, targeting bass beds is a widely accepted practice. This is understandable. Northern bass have much shorter reproductive time periods, whereas southern bass may spawn over a two-month period, largely dissipating any negative effects from angling pressure.

The latitude of our area places us in the middle, geographically. The battle to create a catch and release bass season was hard fought, and only approved by the Fish and Boat Commission with the "no targeting beds” stipulation.

From a complete layperson’s standpoint, here’s how I see bass fishing during the spawn. On the free-flowing Allegheny River, where I do much of my fishing, I suspect there’s little danger from a nest predation standpoint. There are no bluegills, perch, or rock bass to rush in and raid an unprotected nest. However, certain research has shown that if bass are repeatedly taken from a bed, they may abandon it. The nests aren’t visible, but there’s no doubt about what is taking place.

A bigger concern is hooking mortality. Male bass often hit lures out of aggression, to protect the nest. When you’re fishing lightly weighted lures, it’s easy for bass to become deeply hooked.

Jeff Knapp is an outdoors columnist for the Butler Eagle

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